In the last thirteen years, it has become one of the most divisive issues in the travel and hospitality industry, the angry review posted on TripAdvisor that paints a hotel or restaurant in a bad light. But the hospitality industry has long viewed negative reviews on TripAdvisor as little more than libel. Libel or just plain ignorance and bad manners, this is a problem to businesses and needs to be addressed. TripAdvisor was founded in February 2000 by Stephen Kaufer and declares itself as the world’s largest social travel network with over 100 million travellers having used it. Online dictionaries state “Tripadvisor is a travel website that assists customers in gathering travel information, posting reviews and opinions of travel-related content and engaging in interactive travel forums”. This may be an accurate description to the general public, but in principle, those in the hospitality industry consider this network to be cancer to many businesses the world over.
As someone who loves to travel, I’ve found TripAdvisor to be an invaluable resource in researching accommodations, but I pay little attention to restaurant reviews to be honest, as I don’t trust the opinions of a lot of people who post food reviews unless I am convinced they know what they are talking about. If a hotel room is noisy, smelly or dirty, well that’s easy to cover in a few lines of text. If the bed linen is not fresh or there is mould in the shower, that’s probably factual (unless written by a competitor!) and easy to understand. Restaurants however, are a totally different beast.
The pen is indeed mightier than the sword and this can be a rather dangerous truth when it comes to writing about food, drink and travel and as such there have been many Hoteliers, Publicans, Chefs and Cooks who have fallen fowl to the ill informed and inexperienced traveller. I consider myself to be a foodie, a food blogger, freelance writer, call it what you like, and I also consider myself to have enough knowledge and experience to comment on, and review, in particular, my food and drink experiences. I have owned a 60 cover Bistro and also a small pub kitchen food franchise and I have eaten at some very nice establishments from Michelin-starred restaurants to good old fashioned pubs serving home cooked grub. I have stayed in fine hotels all over the world and invested a vast amount of time reading about, learning about and cooking food. In addition to this, I have created a collection of my own tried and tested recipes and am currently a guest reviewer for a North Norfolk based web and design company. I am also hoping that my 2014 eBook of my Norfolk culinary journey will be complete for the deadline date. Given all that, I believe myself qualified enough to offer some opinion of the places I visit based on knowledge and understanding of the hospitality industry. Now I am not for one moment declaring that I am an expert and I am far from being a trained chef, but I do understand and that’s the difference.
In my opinion, the one thing that separates me from some other “bloggers” and “reviewers” is that I made a vow when I embarked on this expensive hobby of eating, drinking and writing about my experiences, that I would never be unjustly unkind, rude or damaging in any way if my experiences were not up to an acceptable standard. Sure, you need to mention when things aren’t right, but there are ways to go about it without being discourteous, scathing and destructive. This is something I am very proud of. There are an ever increasing number of people who consider themselves to be “food bloggers” who offer their opinions (good or bad) which can be widely distributed instantaneously with the push of a button or the click of a mouse and one way to do this is to post on TripAdvisor. Most Chefs I know refer to such people as “TripAdvisor Wankers” and although this may seem harsh and not applicable to all who post reviews, there are good reasons behind their opinions.
“Negative reviews are acceptable, as long as they’re accurate and fair. Critics must always be conscious that they are dealing with people’s livelihoods. Negative reviews, especially, should be based on multiple visits and a broad exploration of the restaurant’s menu”.
– The Association of Food Journalists.
We already know that not everyone is a perfect reviewer, or else we would not have “professional critics” that work for the newspaper, magazines, news radio and television. Besides all that, those professional critics word their reviews carefully and still manage to get their points across without being overly offensive. What I have learnt over the years, is one negative customer service experience will leave a more permanent experience in the mind than a neutral or positive experience no matter how good the food is. This is where the real damage starts!
TripAdvisor has come under increasing pressure from hoteliers and restaurateurs who claim that many of its anonymous reviews are either fake or defamatory. The issue was covered in a Channel 4 documentary entitled Attack of the TripAdvisors. TripAdvisor replaced its long-established slogan “reviews you can trust” with “reviews from our community” in 2011, and following an independent investigation it appears that things have not improved, if anything the situation is worse now than it ever was. Several hoteliers and restaurateurs take legal action individually against the website for alleged defamation and subsequent loss of earnings. Proposed changes to defamation laws being considered by the American Justice Department could prevent TripAdvisor from publishing reports by anonymous reviewers all together. A welcoming change should it ever happen!
I remember a case in point with my Bistro which served high end food to discerning customers in two fixed sittings and a 6, 6, 6 (six choices of starter, main and dessert) fixed price menu. The effect of negative reviews was huge. There were 71 reviews of our restaurant on TripAdvisor, and 62 were positive, but if a bad review is sitting at the top, this leads to a massive impact on bookings and that can be enough to start a distinctive decline of the overall business model. The fact is, that most negative TripAdvisor reviews have a distinct pattern. If you look at a negative review posting and then look at all of the other reviews that individual has posted, you will see many similarities in the writing style. What does this say about such a reviewer?
Well in large these people are ignorant of the subject they profess to hold an opinion of. Your average diner visiting a fine dining restaurant simply does not have the knowledge or understanding of the industry. They have little, or limited (which is even worse), knowledge of food preparation, cooking techniques, menu planning and the tremendous amount of hard work and dedication that goes into the delivery of 120 people eating a ten course tasting menu. They wont understand the skill of pairing sweet and savoury in the same dish, they wont understand that a piece of salmon cooked in a water bath, under vacuum is a scientific process and the Chef responsible for developing a tasting menu is both highly skilled and has trained for years to perfect the techniques used to feed the masses and delight their taste buds.
A lack of knowledge frightens people and for these individuals concerned, they seem to take pleasure by venting their frustrations in words. To be honest, they should stick to fish & chips and be content with that. But even then you will see the serial negative reviewer making waves in the restaurant, demanding a refund because the batter was not crisp enough, or one or two chips were soggy. And even worse, they will then go home and write about it. “TripAdvisor Wankers” might well be a distasteful and disrespectful generalisation, but in many cases, that is exactly what they are!
A recent example of such rudeness, arrogance and ignorance can be seen in this recent review of the Bladebone Inn. A reviewer calling himself “Sinsand”, complained bitterly about his food and the waiting staff, he then goes on to say “we like to support local pubs and restaurants and are real foodies”. He then proceeds to offer feedback to the management in how to manage their staff. You can see the full review Here, but I have taken a screen shot of the review and the owners reply.
This is a tremendous response from the restaurant owner and although for obvious reasons it may have been penned in anger, it is about time establishments fought back in defence of scathing and unfounded comments that can be very damaging to a business.
As I mentioned earlier, “Sinsand” seems to have a general theme in his reviewing style and says of the Miller of Mansfield, “Pretty disappointing restaurant”. He says of their fish pie and chips “the fish pie was big, but nearly all salmon, and both the other dishes came with wierd (Note: I think the correct spelling is weird!) chips/wedges – quite nasty”. And unfortunately the egg with his gammon “was over cooked – no runny yolk. Poor cooking”.
The Hotel Brighton Metropole doesn’t get off lightly either. Sinsand says they “spoiled our holiday – poor hotel and awful value”. This time he has issues with the cleanliness of his room and the toilet flushing system in general, he thought the hotel was “run down and badly run”. The Red Lion in Reading gets a bit of a slating as well, this time “his mothers bangers and mash came with two nasty looking hairs!” The waitress accused the party of “planting” the hairs and if Sinsad didn’t plant the offending items, it is a bit off to find hairs in your food, but if he did, the resulting complimentary food may have been the desired intention!
Even a three star rating has its drawbacks it would appear, The Woody Nook at Woodcote offers sides of vegetables and potatoes (Note: is a potato not a vegetable?), and charges for it. Really, how very rude! To be fair Sinsad does offer some positive reviews and a four star review goes to the Mansion House Harvester. This venue has “a very well stocked and managed salad bar and everyone enjoys making up their own”. There are “unlimited fizzies and reasonably priced drinks”.
I think you can form your own opinions about the validity of these reviews, but in essence this confirms my theory. I am sure Sinsad is a very nice gentleman and someone who I would probably enjoy sharing a pint with, but the poor chap has no idea of food and the hospitality industry, the saddest thing though, is that he is permitted to demonstrate this ignorance on a network such as TripAdvisor. His ignorance of the industry could be so damaging. Why would you complain about paying for side dishes? It is the norm is it not?
I have had many occasions to complain about my food or the standard of service, but there are ways to do this, I remember being served a steak once which I had asked to be cooked medium-rare and it was served totally cremated. I still managed to find a constructive way of reviewing the establishment without causing damage to their reputation, and had a second steak cooked for me perfectly. What would have been gained by my recounting the steak episode in a negative manner? After all, they did rectify the problem. I simply left it out of the review altogether. Why even mention it at all? I ended up getting what I wanted and who knows, the person who cooked my first steak may have only been in the profession for a very short time. It is simply not the “done thing” to be rude and negative to the point of being ignorant and arrogant when writing a review. Now, if I were to get a bout of serious food poisoning, that would be a different matter, but even then there are ways of wording your anger constructively, but that’s just my opinion.
So if you are going to submit a review on TripAdvisor or start up a blog page here are my golden rules. Consider them carefully; they will help you write politely and constructively whether your experience is good or bad.
Keep your expectations real.
Never compare an establishment with a regular favourite you visit.
Remember to distinguish what and where you are reviewing (you cannot expect “pub grub” to look and taste like Michelin food).
Order varied food choices which will give you a broad experience of the menu in front of you.
Assess the food as you consume it.
Ask questions of staff (do they know where the food is sourced, can they describe the dish well, do they know if the meat is organic).
Do you understand the cooking techniques used.
Resist the temptation of frantic note taking while you eat.
Never start taking random photographs of your food and the restaurant (speak with the manager and/or Chef after your meal and ask them for pictures they can email).
If you do feel it necessary to take pictures, discuss the possibility of returning when the venue is closed. Maybe even give your camera to the kitchen team and ask them to take snaps at the pass.
Consider the ambiance.
Always offer fair constructive criticism.
Review fairly and honestly.
Think about what you want to say (once you submit a review, it is too late to change your mind!).
Try and review in secret (I think you should turn up unannounced like a mystery shopper).
Let the staff know after you have eaten what you thought of the food and service (this is a good time to inform them you will be reviewing).
Never ask to “inspect” the kitchen.
Never write anything which is rude as this is unprofessional.
If you do have a problem with your experience, try and have it resolved calmly, do not “save up” your frustrations and simply go away and write about them.
Use a marking system, (ambience, service, food, and value for money, overall scores for example).
Above all else, remember what you write about can affect many people and their possible future!
And if you do have a bad experience, here are my pointers in how to deal with them;
If you have a problem, try to sort it out there and then.
Always stay calm.
Ask to speak to the restaurant manager or owner.
Keep the volume down and give clear examples of the problems experienced.
Be clear about what you think is an acceptable solution or outcome to the problem.
Never take it out on the waiting staff.
You will get a much better result if you are polite, but firm.
Chefs are hardworking and very passionate professionals. They will have spent many years and very long working hours with low wages to learn and perfect the many skills which result in the plate of food which is presented in front of you. Just take a few moments to detach yourself from the expectation of utter perfection and consider how you would feel if you were constantly on public display.
It is a hard life being a Chef and they will never please all of the people all of the time, so please just take time to reflect on your thoughts before creating a blog page or posting spontaneous bitterness on TripAdvisor. And remember this… Nobody likes a TripAdvisor Wanker!
The Food Snob UK
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